Health workers asked to retire
Patient care will suffer, say critics of voluntary plan
By Jodie Sinnema, Edmonton JournalAugust 27, 2009 9:36 AMComments (32)
Nurses, laboratory technicians and other health professionals will be asked to take voluntary early retirement as part of an aggressive cost-savings plan being developed by Alberta Health Services.
Only staff whose positions are no longer required could take part in the program, but government critics say fewer staff -- and planned cuts of three per cent at hospitals run by Covenant Health, as well as long-term care centres --will inevitably mean care will suffer.
"It doesn't take a mathematician or an economist to know that reducing health-care workers in our public health-care system is the equivalent of reducing our health-care system," said Dave Eggen, executive director of Friends of Medicare. "This is a concerted effort to shrink the scope of our health-care system, of medicare, and Albertans will suffer for it."
But Stephen Duckett, CEO of Alberta Health Services, said the early retirement program, which has yet to be worked out with the unions but is available to all management and staff, is part of a plan to save the system$315 million. That's on top of the $650 million already saved through reducing duplications in payroll departments and bulk purchasing of medical supplies.
Duckett said every effort must be made to make sure any new cuts aren't felt on the front lines or by patients, but focus instead on efficiencies so that surgical and emergency waiting times can still be reduced.
"We want to make sure that where we are reducing the staff, we minimize the layoffs," Duckett said, noting he has no goal for how many health workers would take retirement packages. "Patient care is our first priority. We will have to make difficult decisions and choices to make sure that we can keep that our priority in the years ahead."
Currently, the health system faces a $1.3-billion deficit and has long surgical and emergency waiting times. It aims to have a balanced budget and reduced waiting times in three to four years. Part of those cost savings must focus on the workforce, since 70 per cent of the budget is spent on human resources, Duckett said.
He is also asking long-term care providers and partners such as Covenant Health, which runs the Grey Nuns and Misericordia hospitals, to cut costs by three per cent starting Dec. 1, 2009.
Those two hospitals have already cut back the number of MRIs they perform because of budget overruns, forcing longer waiting times.
"Our organization will be looking to find ways to reduce costs and become more efficient while trying to minimize the reduction to patients and residents," said Patrick Dumelie, president and CEO of Covenant Health, the second-largest health services provider in Alberta. "It will be very, very challenging."
Covenant Health has already reduced overtime and left open vacant jobs.
"There's a high probability we're going to have to adjust the level of services that we provide," Dumelie said. "It's too early to say how we might do that, but again we'll be looking first to the efficiencies and then to where we might adjust how we deliver services."
Heather Smith, president of United Nurses of Alberta, which represents 24,000 nurses, said she suspects the early retirement program is a sugarcoated aim to cut staff by three per cent as well.
"It's an across-the-board budget cut," Smith said. She said the plan is completely contrary to years of work to recruit and retain nurses. Specialized programs were even set up in recent years to entice retired nurses back into the workforce, since hospitals, short hundreds of staff, were forced to cancel surgeries.
"The intent is to eliminate those jobs. This came totally out of the blue."